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by Aruldoss SJ - SAR News: Bombay - 051, September 19-25, 1992

There is discrimination against dalits within the Christian Church itself in Tamil Nadu, says a study conduced by Fr Antony Raj SJ, a dalit Jesuit and sociologist.

The study titled DIscrimination Against Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu, was started by the jesuits in 1988. It was published on August 9, 1992, at the Institute of Development, Education, Action and Studies (IDEAS) Centre Madurai.

Fr. Antony Raj is a former president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. At present, he is the Research Director of Dalit Research project at the IDEAS Centre, Madurai.

This study is an attempt at assessing the existence and the extent of the practice of untouchability within Christian Church (principally, the Roman Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu). It intends to persuade the government of India to make the necessary constitutional amendments to list dalit Christians in the schedule caste category so that they too benefit from the policy of protective or favored discrimination. It is hoped that the findings of this study will enlighten the authorities in the Church to correct and rectify archaic and regressive caste practices.

The sampling involves 9,000 respondents, which roughly works out to 1.2 per cent of the total Christian population in the Tamil Nadu. The Statistical Handbook of Tamil Nadu, 1987, gives the following data regarding the distribution of the scheduled caste population in urban and rural areas: rural 17,90,664 (78.84 per cent), urban 17,90,631 (20.16 per cent). Since almost 80 per cent of the dalit population lives in villages, the survey lays great stress on dalits who are living in rural areas. Of the total 9,000 households studies, 94.5 per cent live in villages.


The following discriminatory practices are found from the data collected:

Construction of two chapels, one for non-dalits and the other for the dalits. In some parishes liturgical services are conducted separately.

Separate seating arrangements within the same chapel. Dalits are usually seated at the two aisles. Even if there are benches or chairs, dalits are required only to be seated on the floor.

The existence of two separate cemeteries and two separate hearses to carry the dead.

The operation of two separate queues to receive the sacred body of Christ. In some places, dalits are required to receive communion only after the non-dalits.

Dalit boys are not allowed to be altar boys and lectors at the sacred liturgy.

Non-dalits restrict the Corpus Christi procession, Palm Sunday procession and other processions to the limits of their streets.

Dalits are not invited to participate in the washing of feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday.

For fear of claiming equal participation in the celebration of the feast of the parish patron saint, Parish Councils decide not to collect financial contribution from dalits.

The feast of the village patron saint is celebrated separately.


Using various statistical computations, namely, combined frequency technique, ratio technique, average and dispersion technique, Fr Antony Raj has tried to gauge the nature and extent of discrimination. Questions relating to the nature and extent of discrimination as practiced by high caste Hindus, caste Christians, caste nuns and caste priests are: Do they visit your home? Do they drink water in your home when offered? Do they eat in your home when invited? Are you able to have them as your close friends? Do they accept you as colleagues? Do they admit you into their homes? Do they expect submissive forms of address and body postures when you speak to them? Do they address your elders respectfully? Do they speak about your caste mentality? Do they call you by your caste appellation?

It is evident from the statistical data to the first nine questions that the caste Hindus and caste Christians are more discriminating than nuns and priests. However, the difference is only marginal. All four groups exercise a degree of discrimination which is quite substantial. The last two questions offer some startling revelations. Non-dalit nuns and priests are more discriminating than caste Hindus and caste Christians. In terms of percentage frequency nuns (78 per cent) and priests (79 per cent) speak about caste mentality, which is a discouraging factor. The same applies to the fact that they call dalits by their caste appellation - nuns (81 per cent) and priests (84 per cent).

"The practices of Christianity as observed through exploratory observation and empirical data (statistical analysis) have their roots in the Hindu social order. Christianity in India is a hinduised idea which has incorporated all socio-cultural caste rites and rules of the Hindu community."


Economic discrimination: The plight of the dalits' economic position has been to the issue of landlessness. In an agricultural society like India, land is an important consideration. The landed high caste had deprived the dalits of owning land or property of any kind. This is intended to ensure the supply of a stream of continuous and permanent labour force. Landless and dependent, the lower castes lead an economical unfree and penurious life.

From the survey, it is culled that 12,086 persons out of 9,000 families sell their labour, and 607 persons have to sell themselves to eke out a living. They are called unfree labourers. Of the 607 unfree labourers, 243 are indebted to the landowners. Out of 9,000 families, 3744 (41.6 per cent) have taken loans and are indebted to various types of creditors. About 71.23 per cent have borrowed to meet their daily consumer needs. Only 599 out of 9,000 households (6.6 per cent) have savings below Rs 3,000. Thus 93 per cent of the dalit Christians have no saving at all.

While the majority of the dalit Christians (around 58 per cent) are able to have three meals a day, over 39 per cent are unable to do so. More than 25 per cent of the families have clothes valued at Rs 100 or less for the whole family, and over 65 per cent have clothes worth less than Rs 200. Hence, 65 per cent of the dalit Christians have clothes worth less valued less than Rs 39 per head.

Over 19 per cent of the dalit Christians do not own homes. Since nine-tenths of the rural households in the Tamil Nadu have their own homes, 10 per cent of the dalit Christians have no homes of their own. As of 31/01/1988, 99.4 per cent of the villages in Tamil Nadu have been supplied with electricity. But 67 per cent of the dalit Christians do not enjoy this facility.

Dalit Christian children are prone to attacks of fever. As much as 17.62 per cent of the dalit Christian children are killed annually by this sickness for which simple medical remedies could be procured. About 4.97 per cent of the dalit children become victims of dysentery and diarrhoea. All this underscores the extent of poverty and lack of financial means o obtain these simple facilities by dalit Christians. Needless to say, the economic situation of dalits leaves much room for improvement.


Educational discrimination: UNICEF says to be illiterate is to be excluded. When a dalit was asked why she did not send her son to school, she answered: "My son is not going to be a collector, so why brother?" For this dalit, education is a gateway for status and lucrative employment, which she feels is closed to her kind. The attitude of this woman will reflect the position of the dalits in general.

A lack of economic resources of Christian dalits is one of the main reasons for the poor showing as seen from the survey. The attitude of priests and nuns in our Christian schools is not helpful to the cause of the dalit Christian students. There is also a small percentage of dalit Christian students who dropped out of school. Maybe education, as they see it, does not promise them a good future either. Even after completing school they are unable to obtain employment. Bribes, even in Christian institution, are also a deterring factor.

The distribution of dalit Christians according to their occupations (1990) is high administrative - 0.62 %, lower administrative - 2.68%, professional - 0.60%, teaching - 3.57%, clerical - 1.37%, trade & commerce - 0.75%, transport and public utility - 1.72%, manufacturing, processing & service - 2.26%, construction - 2.80%, own cultivation - 7.29%, agricultural labourers - 54.75%, livestock, forestry etc. - 1.05%, menial - 1.80%, other - 18.74%.

There is not a single IAS or IPS officer from the ranks of the dalit Christian community. Only those who got reconverted to Hinduism managed to enter into the administrative services.

It appears that to be a dalit Christian is to be excluded from the mainstream of society.


Powerlessness: The experience of dalit Christians is one of felt of powerlessness. Among those who are involved in politics non are given any important position at the national or at state level. There has not been any evidence of dalit Christian representation either in the central or state cabinet. Even at the party rank and file no dalit Christian is given any importance. Political reservation of seats in Parliament and state assembly is non-existent. As they have been marginalized in politics, their grievances go unheard, naturally.

More than ever, the state wields extraordinary power through the legislative, executive and the judiciary. There is no dalit Christian either in the legislature, executive or judiciary. The non-representation in these bodies renders the positions of dalit Christians weak and impotent. The government does not offer the dalit Christians any privileges that are enjoyed by the Hindu dalits.

The press as a powerful agency for social change pays scant or no attention to the problems faced by the dalit Christians.

The Church has under its control vast land property, medical and educational institutions, and developmental organs like multi-purpose society. These various departments are largely manned by non-dalits. In fact, the authority of the Church is in the hands of non-dalit priests. Non-dalit priests occupy 92.3 per cent of the offices in the five Catholic dioceses. The lack of dalit representation in the administrative and consultative bodies means lack of opportunity to present their cause at the decision-making level. This is crucial factor. For example, out of the 9,000 respondents, 5,766 (64 per cent) said they were not consulted by their priests on parish activities. Only 305 (9.43 per cent) said that they had been consulted. That too not in any significant way.


Finally, the ennui of powerlessness faced by the dalit Christians in the Church is a matter of deep concern. Out of despair, frustration and confusion, the powerless dalits may garner and muster enough strength and conviction to fight back. If they do, the struggle could be violent. When violence is the end product, the outcome will be uncertain.

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